The Enduring Battle Over America’s Wild Horses

Ben Pierce

There is a fight going on out west – a fight over how we should treat our wild horses.  On one side is the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”), an agency within the U.S. Department of Interior charged with administering the Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.  This statute “declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” and tasks BLM with managing and protecting wild free roaming horses “as components of the public lands.”  On the other side of the fight is arrayed a multitude of animal protection organizations, such as the Animal Welfare Institute and the American Wild Horse Campaign, that are highly critical of BLM’s treatment of wild horses.

Photo by Christine Mendoza

A recent pair of dueling pieces in the Salt Lake City Tribune shed light on this ongoing battle.  Last month, William Perry Pendley, deputy director for policy and programs for BLM, wrote that wild horses pose an “existential threat to our public lands.”  According to Pendley, when wild horse herds are “left uncontrolled,” they “quickly overpopulate their habitat, overgraze the land and decimate the fragile desert spring ecosystems critical to their survival and that of other species.”  The tendency for wild horse herds to outgrow the ability of the land to support them poses an “ecological time bomb.”  If what Pendley states is true, it seems that human intervention is necessary to stave off this cycle of suffering.

But what does human intervention look like?  BLM’s current method of gathering and removing “excess” wild horses from public lands is through helicopter roundups – contractors fly helicopters low to ground, causing the wild horses below to stampedeFences funnel the horses to the designated pen, and the horses are eventually trucked to containment areas.  These helicopter roundups are terrifying, highly stressful, exhausting experiences for the horses, and may even be fatal, as horses that suffer injuries incurred during the roundup may be euthanized.  After being corralled, horses are sent to holding facilities.  Tens of thousands of horses are contained at these facilities at a cost of nearly $50 million per year.

In his article in the Salt Lake City Tribune, Pendley calls for increased gathers and increased capacity at holding facilities.  But he also champions a different tactic, explaining that BLM has increased the number of herds treated with “fertility control.”  In response, Joanna Grossman, the equine program manager for Animal Welfare Institute, wrote a piece that called into question several of Pendley’s claims.  Grossman explains that while BLM touts its fertility control efforts, in reality, BLM “spends less than 1 percent of its Wild Horse and Burro program budget on proven and safe fertility control methods such as the porcine zona pellucida (PZP) immunocontraceptive vaccine.”  Rather than rely on this vaccine, BLM has proposed using a controversial, risky surgical procedure called “ovariectomy via colpotomy.”  According to Grossman, this procedure “involves blindly inserting a metal rod-like tool to sever and remove the ovaries of wild mares while they remain conscious.”  BLM’s proposal to use this procedure has proven contentious – the National Academy of Sciences has advised against the use of the procedure, a federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction halting the use of the procedure on a herd in Oregon, and federal lawmakers have written a letter urging BLM to drop their plan.

Grossman also calls into question the role wild horses play in the degradation of American’s public lands.  Grossman explains that wild horses occupy only 12 percent of the lands managed by BLM, and that cattle outnumber horses and burros by 28 to 1, and even 90 to 1 in some years.  Cattle themselves are a major contributor to environmental degradation, as highlighted by a United Nations study which called livestock “the major contributor to soil erosion on agricultural lands” in the United States.  According to the American Wild Horse Campaign, more than 75% of available forage on BLM lands is allocated to livestock.

It appears that BLM cares more about pacifying the livestock industry than it does about protecting wild horses, despite its statutory directive.  And BLM continues to manage America’s wild horses in an unsustainable, inhumane way.  But animal protection groups are fighting back, and the conflict continues.

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